This essay was first published in Greek newspaper Kathimerini as “Greek Holiday Trilogy,” “the experiences of a carefree American traveler to Greece, through his first visit to Santorini, the search for a secret beach in Sifnos and a spell at a beach club in Ios.” (We’re not sure how carefree but, hey). What follows is the original version in English. By Anthony Grant with illustrations by Philippos Avramidis.
When traveling for any length of time and especially in Greece make Tina Turner your muse: Break every rule, to paraphrase an album title. In some countries throwing caution to the wind is ill-advised; but to not go slightly off-script here is frankly a little silly. This is particularly true in the summer months when the shimmering Greek seas warm up and push those buttons—you know, the ones that tell you to miss your flight and stay an extra week, to savor the sandy crunch of one more beach, or turn left down this winding whitewashed lane in Lindos or Naousa instead of that one and see what happens. After all if the cats, those ultimate artisans of disobedience, are in no hurry as they laze under the fluttering pink bougainvilleas, why should you be?
Like many Mediterranean nations Greece radiates a sensual allure and can exert a gentle libidinous tug on travelers, too. If seduction seems an odd byword in the age of Google Flights and GPS-guided romance just recall Serge Gainsbourg’s homage to the Med holiday vibe with his ‘70s chanson Sea, Sex & Sun. It’s still relevant—and intrepid and few are those who touch down in Malia or Mykonos with intellectual pursuits in mind. But with all due respect to Aphrodite, a break in routine with the high Greek sun to light the way can lead to cooler things than fleeting summer flings. And there are no better co-conspirators than serendipity and 6,000 islands to ensure that there’s no summer like a Greek summer.
Before the dawn of online trip advisers if you hadn’t booked a room in advance by telephone you simply showed up on a given shore and took a gamble on finding a decent place to stay. My first time in Santorini my brother and I used a guidebook to find what seemed like a sure bet—but when we got there the place felt more like lightless medieval dungeon than “charming cliffside cave hotel.” So we grabbed our backpacks and took to the serpentine lanes of Fira. We popped into a record shop and I liked what I heard. I asked who was singing and the owner replied “Anna Vissi!” I now have all her albums, though Ekei has special meaning. We stopped for ice cream. We met a couple who happened to live in the same apartment building as my brother in Virginia. They were staying in Oia. We trailed along and got the last room at their hotel. My brother captured a disappearing Cycladic sun that some twenty years later still sits in a frame above his desk: when he opens his office door every day, his morning begins with that gorgeous Santorini sunset.
Once upon a summer’s weekend in Sifnos I found myself hunting down an isolated beach on this island which has much appeal and gastronomic goodness but not too many secrets—or does it? So when somebody told me I might dig a beach north of Kamares (the main port) called Vroulidia, I went. The hairpin turns were layered up on top of each other like icing on a Kardashian wedding cake—they just wouldn’t quit. On a high portion of the road ahead of me I noticed two lovely and lightly-dressed women trudging along under the very hot Sifnian sun. The road then turned to dirt and barely clung to the mountain’s edge. The blue sea views were swoon-inducing. I drove as far as I could, but finally had to leave the car under a cliff and continue down to the sheltered beach on foot.
It seemed too windy for swimming so I ordered a lemonade from a lonely beachfront taverna which according to Google Maps is located at “Unnamed Road, Sifnos.” (Perfect.) But after a little while the two ladies turned up—one was German and the other Austrian, and between the three of us they could have made a movie called Uncommon Pallor. There was no one else around, and it wasn’t long before we were exchanging travel tips, joking and taking turns leaping into the luminous water from a makeshift jetty. We kept ordering small homemade nibbles from the taverna kitchen and everything was so good and the owner so nice and smiling that we decided to prolong our unforeseen elation by staying for dinner. With the sea in front of us we shared a whole grilled fish—something I never would have ordered on my own—that was probably the best piece of fish I have ever tasted. And you haven’t tasted capers until you’ve been to Sifnos. Our après-feast cocktail came in the form of a crescent moon peeking through a ridiculously fuzzy violet sky, and as I drove my new and pale and happy friends back to Kamares nobody asked what time it was, or much cared.
She was coming from Santorini, like any seasoned Air France flight attendant would. So was I, but it was my second trip to Ios and Sandrine’s first. I had seen her in the dark struggling with a broken suitcase as we disembarked the ferry, so I offered a hand. She didn’t know how to find her hotel so I invited her to come to mine, where the owner is a friend and I knew could point her in the right direction. Before he did, Sandrine and I made plans to meet for breakfast.
But the next morning I overslept and Sandrine had already bolted for the distant and stunning beach of Manganari. Breakfast switched to dinner. We got on instantly, but then some of my best friends are flight attendants—sky nomads, as I like to think of them, or the most contemporary kind of fairy. Like me Sandrine was a wild child at heart, zooming around the clouds in a world full of rules and defying them one takeoff at a time. Within two days we were inseparable.
The next afternoon she texted me with instructions to meet her at a beach club called Erego. I have seen nothing else like it: call it spaceship chic, with theatrically DJ-curated sunsets over the Aegean and design exuberance on such a grand scale that it would take a complete absence of alcohol for me to truly convey the vibe. I wouldn’t have had the chutzpah, maybe, to go on my own. Sandrine is the kind of woman who will call in the middle of night to say ‘honey, I am en route to Singapore—are you going to meet me?” And when I realize resistance is futile I just lean back a little, and blame it on Ios.
Suddenly Last Syros
Sorry folks but this one is classified until further notice. I’ll simply say that a secret beach, a surfboard and a missed bus were involved: Greek summer, you know.